A DSP Rising Star - Penn-Mar

A DSP Rising Star

Posted on January 25, 2024

Emma O’Donnell, Penn-Mar DSP who joined the nonprofit at 19.

When Emma O’Donnell joined Penn-Mar Human Services a little more than a year ago as a Direct Support Professional (DSP), she became the youngest member on the team. Despite her age, (she’s now 20), and a newbie in the field, Emma is awing colleagues and supervisors alike with how far she’s come in such a short time.

“She already performs like a seasoned DSP,” said Kris Froehlich, Penn-Mar South Support Team Manager and Emma’s supervisor. “She’s a quick learner, a shining star I’d say, who I would love to see stay at Penn-Mar forever, because she’s just so good at what she does.”

Working with people with intellectual and development disabilities was not at all on Emma’s radar when she graduated from Francis Scott Key high school in Union Bridge, Maryland, in 2021. Nor was it during her first year of undergraduate study in Ireland at the University College Dublin, where she focused on history and politics.

It was upon Emma’s return home to Union Bridge, where she lives with her mom Kristina and siblings (she is the second oldest of six), and making the hard, last-minute decision to take a gap year that led her to Penn-Mar’s door after answering an ad on the job site Indeed.

“I’m not going to sit around and do nothing in this gap year, I told myself. I need a job,” said Emma, who loves music and is a big reader. “I really liked the sound of the listing, but I was a little bit nervous because I had no experience. I applied because it said training would be provided. I interviewed, and here I am a year and three months later.”

For Emma, her time at Penn-Mar has flown by, and she’s learned a lot in her role as DSP in which she provides one-on-one community-based support to individuals on a weekly basis. The work is unlike any other job she’s had, she said, because of the personal and emotional involvement with the people she supports. And it is the first job she’s had where she doesn’t actively dread coming to work every day. “I love coming to work.”

Holiday Pajama Day (Back row, left to right) Randy, Nathan, Josh, Senior DSP Betty Martin, Paul, and Residential Supervisor Kelly Dorsey. (Front row) Senior DSP Tori Anthony, and Emma O’Donnell.

“There was so much to learn from the start that I didn’t even think about whether I could do the job. I just jumped right in,” said Emma, crediting the great supervisors, managers and coworkers who guided her and gave her all the assistance and support she needed. “I think with the training they provided I felt capable. It can be very challenging because you’re working with people and people have emotions, and it’s something I had never dealt with before.”

Kris is quick to enumerate all the qualities that make Emma a young standout DSP. Because of the nature of community-based supports, Emma always works independently, one-on-one, without the benefit of colleagues around her to collaborate with in the moment, as would be the case in a center-based program. Community based support entails critical thinking and good planning, which as Kris said, Emma has no shortage of.

Another quality Kris noted is Emma’s ability to break down tasks and activities and make, for example, a trip to the library a multi-leveled learning experience for the individual, with the intent of progressing him or her towards greater independence.

“The personal care needs of each of the people Emma works with vary, from requiring a lot of hands-on support, to those who need very little or less because of their level of independence,” said Kris. “She has the ability to base her supports on where people are, and figures out how to support them at whatever stage.”

Being a team player may be inherent in Emma’s nature given she grew up in a large family that loves and plays soccer together. Kris has been impressed with how well she has integrated into her team, and with her confidence to share her ideas and feedback. “She is bringing such value to our team,” Kris said.

Although she is technically still in her college gap year, Emma is currently enrolled part-time in a few online courses, while still working full-time with Penn-Mar. She said she’s grateful for how accommodating and supportive Kris and the team have been.

“When I first started I really honestly thought it would be a temporary job, while I go back to school,” Emma said. “Now, I have a really hard time picturing myself leaving this job. It’s made me reexamine what is meaningful to different people and be able to see the impacts that having a support system can have on people’s lives. Just helping build supports for people in their community the same way that everyone else has. That’s really huge!”

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